Reflection on The Exit, a short comedy script
As part of a pre-production exercise on my course, we were to devise, write, and plan out a script with a focus on dialogue. This short film would not be shot due to the Covid-19 lockdown, but we would carry out all aspects of pre-production. As a second part to the exercise, we did a post-production exercise, which I will talk about in an upcoming post. I was very lucky because I got to do the exact roles I wanted to: writing and editing.
Since I took on the vast majority of the post-production responsibilities, I left all aspects apart from the script with the rest of my group. It was nice releasing control after the script was finished, while simultaneously taking on an absolute and authoritarian role as editor-in-chief with no director to boss me around. Joking aside, I did receive quite a bit of feedback on the picture-edit of the film before taking it into sound design. I talk more about that process my post on the pre-production exercise.
One interesting challenge I had in this project was working on someone else’s concept. In the early stages of the project, we all pitched script ideas. With four separate ideas coming from four different group members, it was hard to see through the trees. I should have known at the time that convincing 18-20 year old boys to work on a Rom-Com would be almost impossible, but I quickly got attached to my little meet-cute. I went through a very thorough process, crafting character backgrounds and motivations, looking at specific tropes, creating a beat-sheet for the whole film, etc. All culminating in a very professional-looking treatment.
In the end, I may have messed myself up by suggesting that, when doing a vote, we could vote for only one script and not our own. It was designed to prevent a four-way-tie, but I think that put myself out of the running. The vote came down 1-1-2, with my vote as the decider against my own script. Oops. I may revisit my short rom com in the future, but for now it has been shelved. At any rate, we went ahead with Samuel’s concept, The Exit.
The Exit is inspired by from several different sources. While it pulls from the common comedic trope of the straight man and the comic relief, seen time and time again in countless films, The Exit is primarily inspired by Seinfeld. It’s set in New York, with the characters directly modelled off Jerry and George. The script also draws heavily on the visual comedy of Monty Python, setting up visual gags to break up the dialogue. While some might criticise the originality of the concept, I’m of the belief that no idea is truly original. All creative works are amalgamations of experiences both fictional and real. Most characters are blended versions of people we’ve met in real life, or on the screen. When they say, “Write what you know,” I believe this to be what they mean.
The concept itself is simple. Guy and Aaron are heading for lunch, but Guy does not want to use the front exit because it would mean he has to walk past the receptionist, whom he “blanked” earlier. But concept and inspirations alone don’t make s story. What makes a scene, or a character for that matter, tick? Sure, Sam had done most of the groundwork breaking the story with his beat sheet and original concept, but I needed more. Before even opening Final draft, I worked a bit more in-depth on character motivations. While these things almost never appear in the script, I find understanding the psyche of a character to be essential before I can set about writing their dialogue and actions. While in Sam’s beat sheet it may say that Guy has an awkward interaction with the receptionist, does that originate from him acting like a jerk, or being anxious?
I worked out a simple motivation for each character within this scene. For Guy, it’s to be accepted by others. He cares greatly about status and perception. His goal is to rectify his previous social blunder by not saying hi. His main character flaw is over thinking everything. He engineers situations for himself which are impossible to get out of. I did similar work for the other characters, but one thing I really wanted to explore was the lie the character believes.
The lie a character believes is a well-known concept. I’m not sure where I first came across it, or its origins, but it essentially, it’s a great storytelling tool. Most people, including fictional characters, believe certain lies about the environment and themselves. For example, Walter White, for most of Breaking Bad, believed he was making a meth empire for his family’s wellbeing. In fact, he was doing it for himself. He liked it. This is a lie he believed until the very last episode of the series, which I go into much greater detail about in this post. This concept is very powerful, and I wanted to explore it practically in this scripting project. My original concept was entirely based around it, but working with Sam’s, I worked it in. As for Guy, in The Exit, he believes that everyone has an opinion / cares about him. He thinks every single receptionist, waitress, homeless person, or any given stranger is constantly judging him. This leads him to lie about himself, to put on a fake persona to impress others, and to give away money he doesn’t have, not out of charity, but out of vanity. Believing this about the world is what directly leads to his conflict in The Exit and influences all his actions.
I blitzed out the first draft in one sitting. With the story broken, I quickly hit a rhythm. I find completing short scripts in this manner helps them to be coherent. I wish it were possible to work in this way on longer scripts as well, but it’s not feasible. I gave it a couple days, then had another pass. By time I had the second draft finished, most visual gags were in their final state, bar one. The feedback I received from my group was the dialogue was really flat and needed more jokes. While this was an interesting critique, I didn’t find it particularly helpful in working on the script. Simply writing in “more jokes” did not help very much. The third draft still felt listless, and boring. I referred back to my character breakdowns, and in my fourth draft I restructured every single joke to inform us about the characters. This brought life to the script and made central conflict more relatable to the audience.
After one last quick meeting, I punched up a few lines and added the final visual gag to make the ending more interesting. I think the script turned out well. It was a rewarding experiencing working with someone else’s concept, and I’m glad I got exactly the roles I want. In this post, I speak to much greater detail about the workshop process. I have also gone into greater detail about the post-production process in this post, which has been a challenge all on it’s own, so stay tuned for great new posts coming your way.